Friday, April 13, 2018

Yossel Rakover's Appeal to God

Jews captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Warsaw, Poland, April 19-May 16, 1943. 
(National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.)

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Soon after the end of World War II, Zvi Kolitz wrote an imagined prayer of a faithful Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust reaffirming his faith in God and Judaism in spite of all. It is quite haunting, but also, in its way, hopeful. Here are some excerpts:

. .. I believe in You, God of Israel, even though You have done everything to stop me from believing in You. I believe in Your laws even if I cannot excuse Your actions. My relationship to You is not the relationship of a slave to his master but rather that of a pupil to his teacher. I bow my head before Your greatness, but will not kiss the lash with which You strike me.

You say, I know, that we have sinned, O Lord. It must surely be true!  And therefore we are punished? I can understand that too! But I should like You to tell me whether there is any sin in the world deserving such a punishment as the punishment we have received!

You assert that You will repay our enemies? I am convinced of it! Repay them without mercy? I have no doubt of that either! I should like You to tell me, however – is there any punishment in the world compensating for the crimes that have been committed against us?

You say, I know, that it is no longer a question of sin and punishment, but rather a situation in which Your countenance is veiled, in which humanity is abandoned to its evil instincts. But I should like to ask You, O Lord – and this question burns in me like a consuming fire – what more, O what more, must transpire before You unveil Your countenance again to the world?

I want to say to You that now, more than in any previous period of our eternal path of agony, we, we the tortured, the humiliated, the buried alive and burned alive, we the insulted, the mocked, the lonely, the forsaken by God and man – we have the right to know what are the limits of Your forbearance?

I should like to say something more: Do not put the rope under too much strain lest, alas, it snap! The test to which You have put us is so severe, so unbearably severe, that You should – You must – forgive those members of Your people who, in their misery, have turned from You.

. . . I tell You this because I do believe in You, because I believe in You more strongly than ever, because now I know that You are My Lord, because after all You are not, You cannot possibly be after all the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of ungodliness!

. . . I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted but not enslaved; embittered but not cynical; a believer but not a supplicant; a lover of God but not blind amen-sayer of His.

I have followed Him even when He rejected me. I have followed His commandments even when He has castigated me for it; I have loved Him and I love Him even when He hurls me to the earth, tortures me to death, makes me the object of shame and ridicule.

. . . God of Israel . . . You have done everything to make me stop believing in You. Now lest it seem to You that You will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I notify You, my God and God of my father, that it will not avail You in the least!  You may insult me, You may castigate me, You may take from me all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death – I shall believe in You, I shall love You no matter what You do to test me!

And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God: nothing will avail You in the least. You have done everything to make me renounce You, to make me lose faith in You, but I die exactly as I have lived, a believer!

Eternally praised be the God of the sea, the God of vengeance, of truth and of law, Who will soon show His face to the world again and shake its foundations with his almighty voice.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul.

– From Out of the Whirlwind, A. H. Friedlander, ed.
(There actually was a Yossel Rakover who died in the Holocaust)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Holy Abandon of Maria Yudina

I watched the movie, The Death of Stalin, last week. It is a grim, but intelligent and funny comedy about the scramble for power–and survival–by his inner circle of scheming toadies like Beria, Krushchev, and Molotov. It highlights the corrosive effects of totalitarianism and government by fear and death. It reveals the pettiness and small-mindedness of the people motivated by fear and the pursuit of power. And it shows the potency of any kind of groupthink while mocking how absurd such thinking looks from the outside.

In the midst of all of this, but also living outside of it, there is one character who does not play the game, who is not motivated by fear or the desire for power. She is the pianist, Maria Yudina. At one point, Krushchev asks Yudina if she is afraid–as he believes she should be. Like he and everyone is. She says she is not because she has faith in God and believes in everlasting life. That baffles Krushchev. But, if frees her. Free from fear she is also  free to speak the truth, even to Stalin. She lives by a different set of rules, a different narrative, a different pattern. As St. Paul encourages in his letter to the Romans, she is not conformed to the pattern of this world, but has been transformed by the renewing of her mind. In short, she demonstrates a sort of holiness.

Several years ago I read a book in which the shape of Maria Yudina’s holiness is told. What follows is from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest which I highly recommend.

It was Maria Yudina’s fate to live through the Russian revolution and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. A fearless Christian, she wore a cross visibly even while teaching or performing in public – an affirmation of belief at a time when the price of a display of religious faith could be one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. She lived an ascetic life, wearing no cosmetics, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled,” said Shostakovich.(50) [this and other references are from Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich, Solomon Volkov, ed.]

For Maria Yudina, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when presses were more carefully policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance, she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”(51)

She not only performed piano works but paused during concerts to read the poetry of such writers as Boris Pasternak, who were unable to publish at the time.

She was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. “She came to see me once,” Shostakovich recalled, “and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. ‘What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?’ ‘I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.’”(52)

Shostakovich heard that friends had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles. “I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. “Naturally, they gave her the money—it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. ‘How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.’ And she replied, ‘I gave it for the needs of the church’”(53)

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a form of sanctity in the eyes of the church.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia. Shostakovich remembered:

Her religious position was under constant . . . attack (at the music school in Leningrad). Once [some officials] rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by “an unknown person” appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature—Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. . . Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that. (54)

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident:

In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The “Leader and Teacher” sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. . . . [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio committee . . . and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert has been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But, she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

I think this is a unique event in the history of recording-I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this – she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend."

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come. Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Leader and Teacher” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.(55)

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as St. George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who “published” with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart. No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since her death.
[The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, p. 99-103]

May we, in our day, have the faith and courage of Maria Yudina and live with the holy abandon in light of the Truth and Love that sets us free.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Romans 12:1-2)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Of First Importance

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

In a post during Holy Week, I reflected on Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God,my God, why have you forsaken me?” in light of the horrific story of Christian Choate who was kept in a dog cage and eventually beaten to death by his father. Such stories are the test of anything we say about God and faith.

The Christian story of Incarnation and cross claims the promise of God’s solidarity with his creatures caught in the web of sin, brokenness, and death. The credal affirmation that the Son of God has descended into hell is hopeful. God has poured the potent, relentless mercy of Jesus’ presence into every hell, on earth or beyond. There is no one, no place, and no situation that is god-forsaken. Hopeful as that is, is it enough? What more can we say about the good news of Jesus Christ in light of the tragic story of Christian Choate and those of so many others?

In his first letter to the young church in Corinth, Paul reminds them of what he considered of first importance, what he in turn had received – that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures
 I suspect few of us have done anything as egregious as Christian Choate’s father. But each of us has failed to love as we are meant to love. Each of us has been negligent of God and neighbor. Each of us has contributed in ways large or small to the mess of the world.

And yet, in spite of that, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). William Temple wrote,
In the most true sense [God] loves me even while I sin; but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath in God against my sinning; God's Will is set one way and mine is set against it. There is a collision of wills; and God's Will is not passive in that collision.

At the cross is the collision of those wills in which God’s love overcomes all our unlove – all of our envy and enmity, all of our indifference. God poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross and thereby entered into the worst humans can do and made a way for us to enter into his forgiveness. There is no one – including Christian Choate's dad – that is beyond the reach of his saving embrace where there is forgiveness.

I suppose, in ways we do not know or comprehend, we have to accept that Christian Choate, as part of the human web of sin, needed that forgiveness as well. But that is where I think an exclusive focus on the cross and our need for forgiveness starts to fall short. Is it really satisfactory if all we can say about Christian Choate is we hope he had an opportunity to say the ‘Jesus Prayer’ and receive God’s forgiveness before his dad beat him to death? Especially given that we have no evidence that he had ever even heard anything about Jesus? And if he didn’t? Were those horrific thirteen years just a brief prelude to an eternity of torture in hell? Is it satisfactory to say, as some might, that, if he didn’t repent, it was due to his being predestined not to do so? That his brief life of suffering was just a small part of the larger story of human sin and he only received in this life a foretaste of the penalty of sin to be exacted by God on all the reprobate? That hardly seems worthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

But, neither is it satisfactory to say, as an any honest atheist must, that what happened to Christian Choate is just one example of the kinds of things that are coded into the world into which we have been born. It is what it is. Any moral outrage about it is just a matter of inherited taste.

The Christian hope is more than that. In Christ, God has addressed more than our guilt. In Christ, God has addressed the deep wound of humanity, and of human history and, indeed, all of creation.

Few of us have suffered anything as terrible as Christian Choate – though my wife, who is a therapist, told me recently that as many as one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually molested. Physical and emotional abuse are also more common than we like to think. So, maybe more of us have such stories of suffering and sorrow than we usually let on. But even if we have avoided abuse of that nature, each of us bears the wounds and brokenness endemic to humanity. We don’t just need forgiveness. We need healing.

It is important to note that healing was as significant a part Jesus’ ministry as was his call to repent and offer of forgiveness. His mercy included both. So did his dying and rising.

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
 Handing on to the Corinthians that which he considered of first importance, Paul referred to the resurrection using the exact language he used for the death of Christ suggesting that the two go together as two aspects of one salvific intervention. The Cross and Easter the Resurrection are two sides of the one coin of the world’s redemption.

In some theologies and popular pieties Jesus’ resurrection is treated as an addendum to what is considered the really important thing which is Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. The resurrection is sometimes reduced to little more than proof of Jesus’ divinity or the assurance that there might be life after death. At most it is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and message. Though I emphatically affirm all of these, the resurrection is also much more.

The crucifixion and resurrection include the promise of healing, transformation, restoration, and new creation. I am persuaded that that is true for the past as well as the present or the future. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has written,

The kingdom of God embraces the earlier generations of mankind as well as the coming ones, and hope for the coming of the rule of God does not only expect salvation for the last generation; it is directed towards the transfiguration of all epochs of human history through the fire of divine judgment, which is one with the light of the glory of God.  

Similarly, Michael Ramsey wrote of Jesus’ Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration of all things in the General Resurrection that is the world’s destiny in Christ,
Confronted with a universe more terrible than ever in the blindness and the destructiveness of its potentialities, men and women must be led to Christian faith, not as a panacea of progress or as an otherworldly solution unrelated to history, but as a gospel of Transfiguration. Such a gospel transcends the world and yet speaks directly to the immediate here-and-now. He who is transfigured is the Son of Man; and as he discloses on the holy mountain another world, he reveals that no part of created things, and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who is Lord, to change it from glory to glory.

Our hope of the resurrection of the body is not just a hope for individual escape from death. It is that. But, it is also the expectation that the body of humanity, stretched out and tortured on the rack of history will be restored. In the final resurrection and restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), it is not just the memory of Christian Choate’s agony that will be redeemed. The trauma, torture, and terror of human history twill not just be forgotten, but redeemed. The very reality of it will be caught up and transfigured–scars and all–in a way we can barely fathom.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has broken open the cage of sin and death and decay that holds us all. The resurrection of Jesus is a ray of light piercing the cloud of Death that is cast over all people (Isaiah 25:6-9) guaranteeing that the world's story ends in resurrection and transformation. Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20). As Paul insists in Romans 8, that is a promise for all of creation as well. All of creation will be renewed.

In the meantime, creation continues to groan under the reality of death and decay. And not just the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

The Gardener come to repair and restore the garden
Mary Magdalene, who the scriptures point out followed Jesus because he healed her (Mark 16:9), not because she had any unusual need of forgiveness (despite later tradition to the contrary), came to honor his tortured dead body at the tomb. There she found the grave empty. She assumed someone had taken the body. What else would she suspect? She asks one she takes to be a gardener where they have taken the body of the one she had hoped would redeem Israel and the world. When the gardener speaks her name, she recognizes that he is in fact Jesus who had been dead, but is now risen and more alive than before.

But, in fact, Mary had rightly identified him the first time. Jesus is the Gardener, come to restore the Garden of creation and history that has been infected with the thorns and thistles of sin and death that have made it a curse for so many to be born (Genesis 3). According to the ancient story, the curse began with a tree in a garden. And the healing and restoration begins with a tree (the cross) and a garden.

The fullness of the restoration of all things remains a hope of the future. We do not pretend that all is already well. In Christ we have received the first fruits. We live in expectation. But, if we allow the Gardener to work in our lives, forgiveness and healing can begin now. New creation can begin now. Transformation can begin now. And as his Spirit moves in and through us we can participate with him in the healing of the land and live now in the shade of another tree in another garden at the heart of the City of the New Creation– the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

The tragic life and death of Christian Choate reminds us that we still walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Sin, with all its violence and greed, is still present. But the shadow of death has been transformed into the shadow of the cross, backlit with the hope of resurrection. Christ has died for our sins and was raised on the third day. In that two-fold event, God' mercy has entered into the deepest, darkest human reality of sin and suffering, like that of Christian Choate. And he has broken out of that hell with the promise of forgiveness, healing, and new creation. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

See also:

Friday, March 30, 2018

Gathered at the Foot of the Cross

A Good Friday Meditation

He we are again,
gathered at the foot of the cross,
our gaze fixed
on the figure fixed on the wood.
Beaten, bruised, bloody, broken;
here is revealed the Mystery at the heart of all,
the author of creation.
What can be said
if this is the truest image?
This is almighty God,
Ruler of the universe?
It is mind-breaking.
It is heart-boggling.
It is tongue-disarticulating.

What does this cock-eyed king,
ruling from this splinter throne,
Only this:
“O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.”
If not only, chiefly.
Whatever God’s holiness, justice, sovereignty, or authority mean,
whatever we think such things mean,
they are dying before our eyes.
They might return on Sunday.
But transfigured.

Fixed on the cross, 
God is revealed 
chiefly to be on the side
not of the powerful, the rich, the beautiful, the successful,
not the self-righteous or the self-satisfied,
not those in the know; 
but chiefly on the side of 
the numb and confused
the battered and bruised
the poor, the meek, the lowly.
the tortured and terrorized,
the oppressed.
The powerless and the poor in spirit.

This is the Mystery revealed.

But more is revealed.
And more disturbing.
The figure fixed to the cross,
on whom our gaze is fixed,
gazes back.
Fixing his gaze on us,
he reveals us to ourselves.
And what is revealed?
Each of us.
All of us together.
From our earliest days,
we have been at the foot of the cross.
We are all neighbors.
This is our common stomping ground.
We are united as members of the crucifying mob
Each of us. Every. One.
All of us together.

We were meant for another locale,
a different kind of community.
Common unity.
The Garden of Delight.
The City of God who is Mercy.
But we moved away.
Went astray.

If we did not know before

into what neighborhood we had moved,
now we know.
And here we are,
the crowd gathered
at the foot of the cross.

The common heirs of Cain,
we are marked.
Marked with envy and enmity,
here we are,
gathered in the neighborhood of the cross.
We are the taunters and accusers.
We are the betrayers, deniers, abandoners.
(We are not the Blessed Mother or the Beloved Disciple. Not yet.)
Those are our bloody fingerprints on the hammer and nails.
Yours. Mine. Ours.
How so?
It is not just God on the cross,
mysteriously revealed in Jesus.
Mysteriously revealed in Jesus,
is all humankind.
We do to him
only what we have already done 
to one another.
What we do to one another
we do to him.
"Truly I tell you,
 just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.”
It is mind-breaking.
It is heart-boggling.
It is tongue-disarticulating.

What we do to one another,
we do to him.
That is the fix we are in,
which has fixed him to wood.
And we hammer away.
All selfishness and pride – whack
All envy and malice – whack
All slothful neglect of loving God – whack
All slothful neglect of loving neighbor – whack
All greed, gluttony, and lust – whack, whack, whack
Every disdainful thought, word, or deed – whack, whack, whack
Every violent thought – whack
Every violent intention – whack
Every violent word – whack
Every violent action – whack
All torture and terror – whack
All that is not love – whack
All that is not mercy – WHACK

We fix one another to the cross.
We are the taunters and accusers of one another.
We are the betrayers, deniers, and abandoners of one another
Our bloody fingerprints are on the hammer and nails.

He said that when he was lifted up,
he would draw all people 
to himself.
And here we are,
gathered, all together, 
at the foot of the cross.
Fixed on the cross where we have fixed him,
the battered figure
fixes his gaze on us.
No good claiming innocence.
No good claiming ignorance.
Each fingerprint,
like every hair,
is known.
No good pointing accusingly at others
“Their fingerprints are more!”
The revealing gaze will not be diverted
from me,
from you,
from us.
We are all in this together.

And yet . . .
That fixed gaze
is power-full
of mercy and pity.
In that gaze, we are known,
guilty, fingerprints and all,
unable to save ourselves.

In that gaze, we are also known
fixed to the cross ourselves,
wounded and scarred,
unable to heal ourselves.

The figure, fixed to the cross,
fixes his gaze on you, on me.
It is a gaze of sorrow and love.
This cock-eyed King, 
this slaughtered Lamb,
this Mystery at the heart of all, 
knows what we have been up to, 
things done
and left undone,
And, still, he reveals his almighty power,
his implacable judgment,
in showing mercy and pity.

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Discerning the Body

A Maundy Thursday Meditation

When I was a newly minted priest in the Diocese of Chicago, William Wiedrich was the suffragan bishop. Bishop Wiedrich was known as a great storyteller. I am particularly fond of a story he told of a church he once served as rector that seems to have had a problem with static electricity. This problem was only exacerbated when they installed a new carpet in the sanctuary. The combination of dry air and the new carpet built up a considerable electrical charge. The first Sunday after the new carpet was installed, Father Wiedrich prepared to distribute the body of Christ. It happened that the first person at the altar rail was his senior warden, kneeling reverently with his mouth open to receive the sacrament. Father Wiedrich said, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” But, as he placed the wafer on the tongue of his warden, there was such an electric discharge that it knocked the warden on his backside. The static electricity became such a problem that Wiedrich enlisted an acolyte to stay near him so he could touch the acolyte to take the shock rather than the people at the rail. The acolytes, in turn, began to draw straws to see who would have to serve as the rector’s human electrical ground. At least at that church, people began to understand that celebrating the Lord’s Supper is serious business and not altogether safe. 

Apparently, the church at Corinth had forgotten that. Of course, the Corinthian church is notorious for being dysfunctional. There were divisions of several kinds. Some of its members were so sure of their superior spiritual prowess that they had pretty much left everyone else behind, including Paul. Some prided themselves on their sophistication and looked down on those they considered unsophisticated in their faith. Others were scandalized by those who did not see things their way. The church was divided over which leader of the larger Christian movement was most worthy to be associated with. There was sexual misconduct and confusion. There were class prejudices that divided the church when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper. In other words, it was pretty much church as usual.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul, rather sternly, reminds them–and reminds us–that church as usual is not the same as being the body of Christ. He warns us against being content with anything less than living together as the body of Christ. He does that by reminding us of the Lord’s Supper and its seriousness. It is serious business because it is where the body of Christ ‘happens’. In the mystery of the Eucharist we encounter, tangibly, the presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine. And in that same mystery, we who have been baptized into the body of Christ are re-membered again and again as we regather in communion at the Communion Table. It is shocking and not altogether safe because what happens is partly determined by the quality of our common life. The quality of our encounter with the Body of Christ in the Eucharist is inseparable from the quality of our common life and the way we engage one another as the body of Christ in our life together and in the world. Paul even warns that if our life together does not rhyme with his, it is possible to receive Jesus in an unworthy manner. We can eat and drink judgement to ourselves. That is shocking.
Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” That is part of the command the we receive on Maundy Thursday. Jesus freely offers himself to us, nourishing, forgiving, healing, and transforming. But, essential to that remembrance is obeying the other command which he enacts in the footwashing. "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." Then he lays down the fundamental mandatum, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” They are all of a piece.

Discerning the body means we recognize Jesus in our midst and in each other. So we submit ourselves to one another in love, giving ourselves to one another and receiving one another, just as Jesus gives himself to us and we receive him in the Eucharist. Discerning the body means every Eucharist is a challenge to again take up the cross and follow Jesus in his Passion; to live as he lived, to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to be people of the basin and towel. Discerning the body means recognizing that the Lord’s Supper, the self-denying disciplines of love, and life in community are inseparable. Am I prepared to receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine if I am not prepared to receive him in the neighbor who comes to Table with me? Am I prepared to receive Jesus offered in the Bread and Wine if I am not prepared to similarly offer myself to that neighbor? If we discern the body, we will engage one another with the reverence and gentleness due the body of Christ.

We are made the body of Christ in baptism and called to live the grace-filled Eucharistic life of Jesus with and for one another. We are both judged and nourished by the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Together we are called to be the body of Christ, broken and poured out for the sake of a hungry, hurting world. That is serious business. It is not altogether safe. It is not the usual, expected way of the world. When we actually live it, it is also, in the best sense of the word, shocking.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Last Sunday, many of us heard the Passion of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark which included this,

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37)

Christian Choate’s body was discovered near Gary, Indiana one summer day. He was buried in a shallow grave under a slab of concrete behind the trailer where he once had lived. He had actually died two years earlier. He was only 13. 

Those were thirteen years of misery. Years of isolation and neglect. Years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his father and step-mother. He lived with them because his mother and her boyfriend had been accused of molesting him.

He was kept home from school and home schooled. The essays his step-mother asked him to write are heart-breaking. She asked to write about "Why do you want to play with your peter? Why do you still want to see your mom? Why can't you let the past go? What does it mean to be part of a family?"

Christian spent much of the last year of his life locked in a three-foot-high dog cage, with little food and drink and few opportunities to leave. He was let out briefly to clean and vacuum. And he endured savage beatings from his father.

One night in April of 2009, Christian was too weak to keep his food down. His father beat him to the point of unconsciousness, then locked his limp body in the cage. The next morning, his sister Christina found him dead.

Christian wrote of why nobody liked him and how he just wanted to be liked by his family. He stated that he wanted to die because nobody liked the way he 'acted.' Christian's writings detail a very sad, depressed child who often wondered when someone, anyone, was going to come check on him and give him food or liquid. Christian often stated he was hungry or thirsty.

But Elijah did not come for Christian. And we have no knowledge of his hearing God or being aware of God’s presence. Given the constraints on his life, we don’t even know if he knew enough to cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

It's a story that haunts me and has become a sort of test case or talking about God. Any god-talk  worth the trouble has to take this story and the myriad other stories of human suffering into account.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

They are the most disturbing of the words Jesus spoke from the cross. But, for me, they are also hopeful. The truth is I often find it hard to believe in God. Much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy. Talk of god in a baby’s smile or the beauty of nature doesn’t quite cut it. Generic talk of “the Holy” or “the Sacred”? I don’t know what that means. Even talk of god as love, by itself, seems to me to too easily slip into sentimentality. All such talk falls flat in the face of the horror of Christian Choate’s story. Or the realities of Syria, the Congo, or Parkland, Florida.

But, this is different. From the cross Jesus cried with a loud voice, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" What are we to make of that? I want to suggest that there are at least a couple of things we can say.

Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, experiences the horror of being betrayed, denied, and abandoned by his friends and rejected by his people. Jesus experiences all the torture, terror, and tragedy that humanity inflicts upon itself when it turns from God.

And, mystery of mysteries, Jesus, who knew such intimacy with the One he called ‘Father,’ experienced the awful, bewildering silence of God. Even as we remember that Jesus cried out using the worship language of his people as found in Psalm 22, there is no escaping that it was a cry of anguish. We dare not try to get around that.

But there is a second thing. In Jesus, we affirm that God’s very self entered into the darkest depths of human experience. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote,
For Jesus, at-one-ment was not only being at-one with the glory of the stars, or the first daffodil in the spring, or a baby’s laugh. He was also at-one with all the pain and suffering that ever was, is, or will be. On the cross Jesus was at-one with the young boy with cancer, the young mother hemorrhaging, the raped girl [and at-one with Christian Choate and his sister. And even with the broken tortured spirits of their parents]. We can withdraw, even in our prayers, from the intensity of suffering. Jesus, on the cross, experienced it all. When I touch the small cross I wear, this, then, is the meaning of the symbol.

The cross is what makes it possible to believe in God at all. That is on of the reasons this Friday is good.

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the first years of WWII, wrote in Christus Veritas,
The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . .He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His.

Temple goes on to claim, “Only such a God can be God of the world we know.” Only such a God can be God in a world that includes multiple stories like that of Christian Choate. Only such a God can be God of our own stories.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Let’s be clear. This is not Jesus vs God. This is not God the Father torturing Jesus so he won’t have to torture us. The God we know through Jesus is not like Christian Choate’s father. This is God, the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – working in harmony to address the deepest, darkest depths of human need to bring forgiveness and healing and the promise of restoration.

And we know – thanks be to God, we know – that whatever Jesus experienced in his cry of dereliction, he did not despair and God did not abandon him. We know the rest of the story. We do not need to pretend on Good Friday that we don’t know what happens on Easter Sunday. We know that God was in Christ reconciling the world. Through the cross and resurrection God has come to transform the torture, tragedy, and terror.

This does exhaust the meaning of the cross. It does not answer all the questioned raised by the hard reality of human suffering. But, we can give thanks that in Jesus’ cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" there is the assurance that there is no human experience – not even the appalling, heart-rending experience of Christian Choate – that is finally God-forsaken.

(To be continued on Saturday with Of First Importance)

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